Memorials, monuments and flights dedicated to the Royal Air Force and those who flew to defend our liberty.
The rest of this article can be found in the special RAF 100 Year Anniversary Edition 2018 issue of The Armourer.
They found his body washed up on the stark and stony shore of Trondheim, Norway. He was dressed in the uniform of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force, Scottish regiment, but also had South African Air Force insignia on the tattered remains of his uniform. They found no other identifiers on his person, apart from the name stitched on to the chest of his shirt: G. B. Callaghan, and the stripes on his shoulder signifying the rank of lieutenant. Despite this, his death would remain a mystery, not only for those who chose to honour him by burying him in the frozen ground of a melancholy Norwegian graveyard, but also for his family back in then Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) for many years to come.
Being 1943, it was not a simple matter of using the internet to seek out the relatives of the young pilot, thus it was not until the early 90’s when a Norwegian civil engineer and his son decided to attempt to track down the family of the mysterious Lt. G. B. Callaghan, who had never been claimed and whose grave had never been visited except by the locals who had buried him, that his family first came to hear about him.
This is how my mother learnt of the fate of her missing grandfather, through the dedication to uncover the story of a long-dead stranger for curiosity, to be sure, but also for the far nobler cause of bringing peace to a suffering family and to honour someone who fought, and died, for what they believed in. In many ways his grave is a war monument to his final resting place. It attests that he was alive and did his duty and flew magnificently. My grandfather visited that grave and there paid his respects to his father, now found. My family will now always have a space where we can honour him, a physical memory to point others to and a monument to attend.
That monument is well known in our family, and is the subject of occasional pilgrimage and a place we can share our history with the younger members of our clan. Its importance cannot be understated, and this is just a simple grave and one family’s story. How important, then, are other war monuments that honour hundreds and thousands of men and women who paid the ultimate price fighting the most important war of the last hundred years? And, in the case of the RAF, where does one go to pay their respects to past aircrew? Their battles were in the sky and not tied down to specific locales as is the case with many other memorials. Many towns and cities will have memorials dedicated to several battles, events or people, but only a handful of RAF memorials exist in the UK. However, these memorials are often breath-taking and do an excellent job at demonstrating the importance of the RAF during World War II and honouring their sacrifices. Here then is a list of some of the most well-known, and some upcoming, memorials and monuments dedicated to the RAF.
The Battle of Britain
The Battle of Britain is perhaps the most famous military campaign undertaken by the RAF. From 10 July to 31 October 1940 almost 2,000 British and Canadian aircraft defended the UK from Luftwaffe incursion, defending against a force of over 2,500 German aircraft. Though civilian and military casualties were heavy, the defence was successful and arguably enforced an already firm backbone of Allied resistance against Nazi forces. Since 1943 the 15th of September has been known as the Battle of Britain Day and often sees memorial parades and flights in honour of the RAF.
The Battle has several notable memorials around England, however three in particular stand out. The first is the monument located on the White Cliffs at Capel-le-Ferne, on the coast of Kent which was commissioned by the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust and dedicated by Queen Elizabeth in July of 1993. The outdoor monument’s paths form a large propeller-shape radiating outwards from a seated pilot in the centre who is staring out over the English Channel.
The site, opened in 2015, is notable for having a fascinating visitor centre built in the shape of a Spitfire wing. It features several multimedia interactive experiences and information centres to give visitors an in-depth understanding of RAF battles and especially of the Battle of Britain. The site also hosts replicas of two well-known aircraft: the Spitfire and the Hurricane. A more traditional, but no less impactful, memorial wall is also present and lists the names of 3,000 aircraft crew who were involved in the Battle of Britain.
Our second, and more recent memorial, is the Battle of Britain Monument in London which was opened in 2005, on the 65th Anniversary of the Battle, and is located at the Victoria Embankment, overlooking the Thames River. This monument was opened in the presence of several surviving RAF members, known colloquially as The Few after Winston Churchills famous quote: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” wherein he honoured the ongoing efforts of the RAF. The 25-metre-long monument commemorates pilots lost during the Battle, including those from other Allied countries. It is made of bronze and granite and has several stylised reliefs of pilots and aircrew scrambling for their aircraft to defend their homes, amongst other scenes.
The third memorial is not a monument but rather an event, or, in their own words, a “museum without walls”. The RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight was formed in 1957 and is group dedicated to a single mission:
“to maintain and fly historic RAF bombers and fighters, to provide members of the public with the sight and sound of a by gone age and to stay a ‘living and breathing tribute’ to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
A Lancaster Bomber, Spitfire and Hurricane make up the core of this aerial display with a further nine aircraft joining the flight depending on the event. The group also maintains a Visitor’s Centre in Coningsby, Lincolnshire. Unlike more static monuments, the flights are used to instil a sense of tactile history in their audience and the visitor’s centre allow for a guided tour of the aircraft when not in use. Support the flight here: https://www.raf.mod.uk/bbmf/
High on the list of important memorials to visit would be the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London. Opened in June of 2012 the memorial commemorates over 55,000 aircrew and civilians from around the Commonwealth who either gave their lives in service of the RAF or who were killed in bombings and raids during WWII. The names of aircrew who survived are also included on the monument.
Controversy has often surrounded the tactics used by Bomber Command during WWII, notably the bombing of civilian centres, dams and other arguably ‘non-military’ targets. This controversy, combined with funding issues, delayed the construction of many RAF monuments and especially those dedicated to bombers, but a resurgence in support has seen a rise of such memorials in the last decade. Dambusters enjoy something of a heroic status in the RAF community, along with dogfighters and ace pilots, and have been the subject of public attention recently with a spate of films and books on the subject. The raider crews have finally seen their efforts become commemorated in monument form and, to quote veteran pilot Alan Finch, it is “bloody marvellous.” Support Bomber Command’s efforts here: https://www.rafbf.org/bomber-command-memorial
The Air Forces Memorial in Englefield Green near Surrey, also called the Runnymede Memorial, is the largest memorial on this list and hosts the names of over 20,000 men and women, from multiple Commonwealth countries, who were involved in the RAF during WWII. The specific purpose of this memorial is to list those with no known grave in any part of the world. Thus, many commemorated here have never had their remains found or have simply vanished in the line of duty and were never properly commemorated. Built in 1953, the building hosts several wings with a variety of plaques, insignia and monuments dotted around the landscape all revealing the names of those lost. A restful setting befitting a memorial, the building overlooks the Thames River and the Runnymede Meadow. If your family is missing a loved one from this era, this might be a good place to start.
Find out more on the Runnymede Memorial and others in the special RAF 100 Year Anniversary Edition 2018 issue of The Armourer.
Royal Air Force Memorial
The oldest memorial on this list, the Royal Air Force Memorial was unveiled in 1923 and stands tall on the Victoria Embankment in London. Initially created to list the aircrew lost during the Great War, it was expanded in 1946 to include the names of those lost in World War II and is considered by and large to be the official memorial dedicated to the RAF and related services. The monument is made from Portland stone and features a gilded eagle perched atop a globe preparing to take flight as well as several inscriptions on each face of the central pillar. On 15 September every year, to commemorate Battle of Britain Day, and the RAF fallen the Chief of Air Staff places a wreath at the foot of the monument in a solemn and impactful service. Two sides of the monument bear the motto of the RAF: Per ardua ad astra (Through adversity to the stars). Support the memorial fund here: https://www.rafbf.org/about-us/raf-memorial
National Memorial Arboretum
Arguably one of the most beautiful memorials on this list, the National Memorial Arboretum is a living memorial where trees have been planted in honour of those who lost their lives in service to, not only the RAF, but the Armed Forces as a whole. Built in 2001, the monument is located at Alrewas, near Staffordshire, and boasts 150 acres of trees, memorials and monuments. 50,000 trees are planted there and more are added every year with the site also being a collection point for monuments and plaques that are no longer being cared for by previous owners or governing bodies so that they might always have a resting place.
The Future of Memorials
January of 2018 saw a new International Bomber Command Centre opening at Canwick Hill in Lincoln. The centre is taking memorials a step further and is not only providing traditional memorial space in the forms of walls and monuments, but is combining interactive multimedia elements, museum elements including artefacts, displays and archives, tours and more. The archive work is of particular interest as it will feature, amongst other records and information, the names of every single person who lost their lives in service of RAF Bomber Command (57,861 names), which is no mean feat. It will also focus on RAF experiences, stories and tactics as well as the aftermath and rebuilding of European and British cities and society. The site will boast what will become the “UK’s tallest war memorial” – a 31-metre-tall spire (the same length as a Lancaster Bomber wing) – as well as two peace gardens amongst other architectural edifices.
Memory and Memorials
As the years tick by, we begin to lose our direct connection to the events of the past through those who were there and are still with us now. We are lucky that at our memorials and events, veteran members of the RAF, and the other Armed Forces, can still grace us with their presence and regale us with their stories and experiences. These monuments and memorials are of paramount importance, as is our support of them, for with no understanding of the past, how can we plot an effective future? It is up to us to honour the sacrifices of those who came before us and to know our shared histories. Visiting these monuments and supporting those who maintain and build them is just the first step, it is up to us to carry their stories forward to newer generations so that what we many owe to The Few is not lost to the shadows of history. To find out how you can support the RAF and its memorials, visit: https://www.rafbf.org/
Find out more on the Royal Air Force in the special RAF 100 Year Anniversary Edition 2018 issue of The Armourer.